“When Skies Are Gray” Puts Us in Grief, Acts of Mercy

“It’s so good to see something serious at The Fringe.” “Way serious — I mean, death. “And yet it’s so beautiful, so tender.” “Yeah, I’m still crying.” “I’ve never seen anything like it.” “Never.” “Not anywhere.”

This was the talk in the hallway after a performance of Ashley Steed’s newest work, When Skies Are Gray. It’s a quiet yet intense immersive/interactive piece that no one seems to leave unshaken.

In early 2017, Steed, artistic director of the Visceral City Project, lost her mother. “Lost” is an odd way to put it, as if she’d misplaced the most important person in her life. “Said a last goodbye to…”? “Was deprived of…”? No words are adequate for such a thing  — yet in this simple experience, with very few words, we feel it. All.

Ashley Steed, Melissa R. Randel (photo: Christina Bryan)

When Skies Are Gray begins as a Head Nurse (Christina Bryan) asks us to don masks and badges and enter a white-draped room. Inside, a woman lies  half-conscious on a mattress. A wheelchair stands nearby. We are in a hospice, and the woman — Mother (Melissa R. Randel)– is dying.

Soon, a younger woman — Daughter (Steed) — enters and goes to her, crouching and cooing, whispering, smoothing her hair. She sings softly; when Mother is seized by pain, Daughter cradles her. She lifts Mother into the chair, helped by one of us wearing a “Nurse” badge, and the pair walk the halls. She and Nurse put Mother back in the bed; Daughter kisses her and leaves.

Visits continue. At times, Mother recognizes Daughter and speaks, or tries to; at times, she does not. Others of us become involved in the small acts of mercy, as medications and meals are needed. But always, we are hushed, focused. Tears often spill onto our masks.

In a brief hour in this small room, Steed’s artwork takes us far, on journeys deep into our own lives — our fiercest loves and losses, our unspoken fears, our regrets. Ghosts fill the space, charging the air with emotion and meaning. It’s no wonder we feel a bit unsure on our feet as we rise to leave.

But this is what the best art does — takes the most crucial moments in life, strips them to the essentials, and invites everyone in. A year and a half ago, Steed led a group in devising Wonder City, a brilliant, noisy evocation of life in LA. (She commuted between the rehearsals and her mother’s bedside.) Now, she offers a meditative, powerfully emotional hour beside death’s shore.

We are fortunate to have this “professional make believer” (as Steed describes herself) making her art in our city. And fortunate that she can find collaborators like Bryan, who gently but surely holds us all together, the exquisite Randel, Dave McKeever (whose delicate yet urgent music embraces and impels us), and Brandon Baruch (whose spare use of light evokes the shadows of dying, yet helps us carry our warmth there).

When Skies Are Gray occurs six more times this month. But each time, it only brings 16 guests into the room. Act quickly, and you’ll share in an experience like no other at Fringe. Or anywhere.
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When Skies Are Gray, written and directed by Ashley Steed.
Presented by The Visceral City Project, at Thymele Arts, 5481 Santa Monica Blvd., LA 90029.

June 8 (Friday) at 7:30,
June 9 (Saturday) at 4:30,
June 15 (Friday) at 8:30,
June 16 (Saturday) at 5:30,
June 22 (Friday) at 9:30,
June 23 (Saturday) at 4:30.

Tickets: <www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/5170>